Anyone can take what they need from the larder at Community Share in Dorchester. Image: Community Share
When the Covid-19 pandemic began, over 4,000 mutual aid groups formed to offer support for those in need. The assistance they provided included food shopping, collecting prescriptions, checking in with neighbours and general support for those at high risk from Covid.
Recent research from the We’re Right Here campaign, which looked at 1,000 mutual aid Facebook groups formed in March 2020, found that 41 per cent are still offering support to their local communities 25 months later.
Despite Covid restrictions easing and fewer people in isolation, the vital work many of these voluntary organisations did during lockdown continues through initiatives such as community kitchens and food banks as prices soar across the UK in the face of the cost of living crisis.
One example is Dorchester Community Kitchen, now called Community Share. The mutual aid group started out as a WhatsApp group chat but soon became a food-sharing service delivering 150 family food parcels a week across the whole of Dorset during the first lockdown.
Now they run several local community larders across the county, with one more due to open in the Sherbourne area.
Mark Topp, a pastor at the Storehouse Church in Dorchester and one of the founders of Community Share, said: “We want to put people back in the heart of the community. We aim to help people in the community better themselves.”
The larders supply a mixture of dry foods and, in one location, they also have a fridge providing fresh food. People who need food can simply help themselves.
“We are set apart from other food banks,” Topp explains. “If you need food, you can just come and help yourself. We don’t ask questions, we don’t have a means test or any vetting, because we want to break down the stigma around food poverty.”
Mark and his colleagues formed the group three days before Boris Johnson put the UK into its first lockdown in March 2020.
They have built a network in their community to help keep the larders full for those in need.
“People donate food to us,” says Topp. “But we also have relationships with our local supermarkets.
“We are involved with a scheme called Neighbourly that works with multiple different supermarkets and businesses and helps them make a positive impact in their communities. They put us in connection with outlets that have surplus food available for us to take.”
Mutual aid groups make it easier for locals and neighbours to help each other, and many are still active and have become registered and established charities since forming in 2020.
They are, according to the University of Hull: “self-organising groups of people who come together to address the challenges in their communities, through mutual support” which are “focusing on building bottom-up structures of cooperation”.
Direct community action allows people and their communities to be at the core of their own services, the Local Government Association says, whether that involves building community, social capacity, sharing skills, community resilience, helping people into employment or developing community enterprise.
While communities can’t always make changes independently, people can still make a big difference by shaping and encouraging behaviour and policy change.
The Mobilising Volunteers Effectively (MoVE) project, a collaboration between the universities of Hull, Sheffield and Leeds, found that increasing numbers of families and communities turned to charities for support during winter 2021, and mutual aid groups stepped in to bring help and relief to those most in need.
As the cost of living is set to rise with increasing fuel, energy and utility costs, it is expected that people will continue to reach out to many of these mutual aid groups.
Community Share gets 10 fresh loaves of bread a week, and they just started working with their local Greggs, where they pick up any food that would otherwise go to waste.
The team, made up of 10 volunteers, has helped more than 4,000 people in just over two years, and now they are getting ready for increasing demand as autumn approaches.
“The cost of living crisis will hit families hard later this year,” Topp says. “And many people will have to ask themselves, do we heat or do we eat?”
Energy costs have risen dramatically this year and another price hike is expected again in October, potentially up to £3,000 a year. This would mean costs have more than doubled in less than a year. According to the ONS, energy prices continue to be the main driver of inflation, which is expected to reach a 40-year high, soaring towards an expected 11 per cent this autumn.
The mutual aid group say they will continue to help people through the crisis by opening up more food larders, and will work with local organisations and businesses who are already helping them support communities. The local authority has also provided the group with money, which will go towards stocking the food larders.
“If you are in a crisis, you can come to one of our larders and have a week’s worth of shopping for nothing. That will help people save extra money to pay their bills.
Topp’s church is also running a CAP money course to support and educate people about budgeting and smart shopping.
“Community action empowers the community to have a say and a voice,” Topp says.
“People know how their own community should work and what it needs.
“We can decide where our money is spent, what projects go ahead. We know what’s right for our community.”
We’re Right Here is now calling on the government to introduce a “Community Power Act”, a major new law which would give local people the power they need to shape the places where they live.
It would provide organisations such as Community Share with a more sustainable funding model.
This would give councils and local people a greater say over their public spaces, services and local investment.
“The Community Power Act is the missing piece of the devolution puzzle,” the group says on their website. “It will build a clear and trusted track along which power can be devolved from Whitehall to regions, local areas and all the way to the neighbourhood level.
“There is already a large and growing movement of people around the country taking action in their communities. This Act would remove some of the institutional and legal barriers in their way.”
Sacha Bedding from the Annexe community centre in Dyke House, Hartlepool, and one of the leaders of We’re Right Here, wrote on the organisation website that the pandemic “showed us all how powerful a community can be. And that spirit of togetherness is still strong.
“But it’s happening in a system that still fundamentally distrusts the idea of local people having real influence in their neighbourhoods.
“Local people can be a big part of the answer to the problems facing us as a country. We just need the powers to get on with the job. That’s why we’re calling for a Community Power Act, to change where power lies in this country.”
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